Buddhism can be seen as a body of ideas and practices aimed at enabling anyone to become fully awake – to become aware of what it is to be here, to be alive at this moment, every moment. In the Zen tradition to sit in meditation is to treat all phenomena as being of equal importance, to be experienced and observed with equal care, acuity and equanimity. There is no thought, sensation or feeling that is too mundane or too small to be unworthy of mindful attention. Awakening in this context is to notice without commentary everything that arises, to attend to the interwoven streams of sensations, narratives, images and emotions that constitute consciousness. It is to notice that there are no solid and fixed boundaries to ourselves. Instead, we notice that we are a constantly changing hub of relationships with everything that surrounds us, humming with information-processing and imaginative construction. We make ourselves from moment to moment, fashioning ourselves out of the materials of our experiences.
Stephen Batchelor argues that the Buddha encourages us not to try to destroy the self (which is how Buddhism is sometimes presented – as a nihilistic religion) but to create the self, to fashion it out of the available material in the way that a carpenter creates something out of wood. Or, we might say, as a musician makes something out of vibrations of sound. The self is according to Batchelor (2010: 152) and the Buddha, “a project to be realised” rather than a transcendent entity with a fixed essence. The self we make in this way is a functioning, responsive, imaginative self that participates in the world and is inseparable from it. The Buddha’s teachings are a recipe for action rather than a catalogue of dogmas or rules. He acts as a guide and navigator, helping anyone to enquire into the processes of living, in order to re-orientate and revise who, and how, we are in the world. And a crucial starting point for this enquiry and re-visioning is the activity of mindful meditation, attending to the stream of sensations, thoughts and feelings that constitute the fluid materials of our self-making. In this sense we are an open work, a work in progress – a process that is never finished, never complete.
But, as the Buddha teaches, the way in which we attend to this flood of experiences is of crucial importance to our awakening. There is no point trying to distance ourselves, or stand aside from, the flow of sensations, thoughts and feelings – for this is both to remain asleep or unseeing, and to attempt the impossible. As Batchelor writes, for the Buddha, freedom and equanimity is to be found ‘not by turning away from the world but by penetrating deep into its contingent heart.’ (ibid: 131) The art of attending in this way is to be fully present to the flow of experiences but not to add to it by commenting on it or trying to grasp at the flow, or by desiring it to be this way or that, or by responding to the flow with hope or fear. The crucial factor is to let it be, to let it flow, to be attuned to the rhythms and dynamics of movement, rather than trying to stop it – for it is unstoppable! To engage with life in this way is to experience how things are, how we are and to gain an understanding that enables us to let go of habits of thought, emotion and behaviour.
It is worth quoting Batchelor at length on the Buddha’s awakening:
‘[The Buddha] could remain fully present to the turbulent cascade of events without being tossed around by the desires and fears it evoked within him. A still calm lay at the heart of this vision, a strange dropping away of familiar habits, the absence, at least momentarily, of anxiety and turmoil. He had found a way of being in this world that was not conditioned by greed, hatred, or confusion. This was nirvana.’ (ibid)
And it is crucially important that the Buddha ‘found a way of being in this world,’ in the contingent reality of everyday experience. He came to terms with the complicated, messy, tangled web of everyday living. His particular insight and strategy is to realise that rejecting this reality in favour of a belief in an alternative reality, is unhelpful, unnecessary and unwise. Liberation and equanimity do not lie in entering a state or place of transcendence, heavenliness or non-contingency. No, according to the Buddha, freedom and equilibrium are to be found in noticing what goes on here and now, by paying attention to the relational field of which we are an integral part.
This process of attending to what goes on inside, around and through us, with care and precision, includes attending to suffering in all its aspects (from mild dissatisfaction to severe pain and illness) – attending to the immediate felt pain and to the responses to that pain – the fear and anxiety that can exacerbate the pain itself. To pay attention to the whole spectrum of dissatisfaction, unease and dis-ease can have a profoundly calming effect on the restlessness and confusion we all feel from time to time, enabling us to experience a more peaceful equilibrium in the face of the difficulties of living. And paying attention to one’s own unease and pain tends to lead to a deeper awareness of the suffering of other beings, which, in turn, gives rise to empathy and compassion, a sense of kinship and connectedness with all beings.
At the heart of the Buddha’s teachings lies a belief that only by attending to one’s own experiences in this world, can we understand and begin to deal with the difficulties that we encounter. Daily experience, even at its most mundane, becomes the raw material out of which we remake ourselves and achieve a more balanced, peaceful and less fretful mode of being. The Buddha advocated mindful meditation as a particularly effective tool for enquiring into this life – for finding out for ourselves, about who we are and how we are in the world. It also helps us to recognise, and navigate through, the constantly changing circumstances in which we find ourselves.
One important factor in the processes of enquiring into, and dealing with, the contingencies of living is the recognition that uncertainty and doubt are unavoidable, indeed they are vital to any process of open-ended and continuous enquiry. There can be no final understanding or solution to the ever-changing conditions of living, no permanently valid answers to the constantly changing questions we pose. The Buddha offers us guidance on how to live with uncertainty – how to work our curious way through the puzzles and unknowns we encounter from day to day. Through mindful meditation we can begin to recognise that our reactive habits of thought and behaviour often lead us astray, keeping us from forming new solutions, and creative responses, to life’s challenges. The practice of mindful contemplation and enquiry enables us to pay attention to, and to let go of, our reactive habits and rigid modes of thought and action. In this way we can come to consider doubting, unlearning and unknowing as positive qualities – equal to, or sometimes of greater benefit, than certainty, learning and knowing.
– slighted amended version of pp 120-123, of my book, Agents of uncertainty, Rodopi/Brill, 2012.
Batchelor, Stephen. 2010. Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. New York: Spiegel & Grau.